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Jewish Journal

The Year In Review

In space of one year, Israel went from brink of peace to verge of war.

by Jessica Steinberg

September 13, 2001 | 8:00 pm

What a difference a year makes.

A year ago at this time, just before Rosh Hashana, Israel still held out hope for peace with the Palestinians, even though they had spurned former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's unprecedented generous offer at the Camp David summit in July 2000.

Ariel Sharon was leader of the Likud Party, still considered too hawkish and controversial to have a realistic chance to become Israel's new prime minister.

Now, the Oslo peace process is dead as Israel contends with a violent Palestinian uprising whose end is not in sight. Sharon, now the prime minister, is under attack from the right for not retaliating harshly enough against the Palestinian Authority -- even against its president, Yasser Arafat himself.

Just days before last year's celebration of the Jewish New Year, Sharon toured Jerusalem's Temple Mount, accompanied by an entourage of supporters. The following day, Palestinian violence began.

At first, many on the Israeli left and in the international community blamed the violence on Sharon's visit. Later, several top Palestinian officials said that the Palestinian Authority had decided to resort to violence shortly after returning from the Camp David summit to show its strength and gain bargaining power, and seized on Sharon's visit as a pretext.

In any case, the aftershocks of last year's visit were clear.

The year 5761 began with a bang of rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails, quickly escalating into drive-by shootings, gun battles, suicide bombings, mortar attacks, roadblocks and F-16 attacks.

The year of violence raged from the north, where Israel's own Arab population exploded in riots in the early days of the intifada, through the heart of Jerusalem, where a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 at lunch in a pizzeria and where four bombs exploded in one day alone in early September. Violence ran the length of the West Bank and down south to the Gaza Strip.

By the end of last October, 13 Israeli Arabs were dead, leaving Jewish-Arab relations in a shamble and the Barak government in disarray.

Many West Bank settlers couldn't leave their homes for fear of snipers. Palestinians couldn't get out of their villages as the Israel Defense Force built roadblocks and checkpoints to keep terrorists out of Israel.

Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood built just over Israel's pre-1967 border, became a target for Palestinians shooting from Beit Jalla, a neighboring Arab village.

Places like Kfar Saba, a well-to-do bedroom community of Tel Aviv, and Netanya, a normally quiet beachfront city, became the front lines in a war of attrition.

As the intifada escalated, media coverage became an issue. Rock-throwing Palestinian children were wounded and killed in head-on battles with Israeli soldiers; cameramen rarely caught the Palestinian gunmen hidden among the crowd, while the Israeli forces were clearly depicted.

The photo of 12-year-old killed in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire while huddling with his father in a doorway, touched off international condemnation of Israel.

On street corners, in cafes and in kitchens, Israelis began asking how the conflict was being fought: Were Palestinian mothers to blame for sending their children into battle, or were Israeli soldiers too quick on the trigger?

When two Israeli reserve soldiers were brutally beaten and mutilated by a mob in Ramallah in mid-October, Israeli outrage -- and reaction -- was quick.

Barak sent Cobra helicopters to bomb Palestinian security buildings in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip. The army warned the Palestinians about the impending attack, however, leaving them time to escape before the missiles hit. Considered shocking at the time, such reprisals soon became almost routine.

For many Israelis, however, the response wasn't enough.

Barak, who served as his own defense minister, hoped to avoid escalating the violent, daily battles. But the Ramallah lynching proved a turning point.

At the end of October, Barak and Sharon tried to form an emergency government of national unity, to no avail. Barak's government appeared increasingly shaky.

President Clinton offered to help, pushing Barak and Arafat toward peace. But a series of summits in Paris and Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, failed to produce a lasting cease-fire.

Finally, Barak gave in to the pressure and scheduled elections for prime minister.

In December, Barak began readying for his face-off against a Likud candidate, presumably former prime minister and party favorite Benjamin Netanyahu. When the Knesset refused to dissolve and go to general elections, however, Netanyahu declined to run.

Left to face Barak was Sharon, the 73-year-old leader of the Likud Party, a battle-scarred former general best known for his invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and his staunch support for the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

By this time, the intifada and the dying peace process had devastated the Israeli left. Scores of Israelis were disenchanted with the Palestinians and confused by Barak's response to the violence.

Seeking to overcome a reputation as a warmonger, Sharon promised that if elected he would form a national unity government of Likud and Labor politicians who would offer a balanced response to the escalating violence.

As elections approached, the pace of diplomatic activity increased. In December, Clinton presented his peace proposal, which called for a Palestinian state and the division of Jerusalem. Israel agreed to the plan as the basis for further discussions, but the Palestinians offered so many qualifications that they essentially killed the plan.

Still, negotiations continued in the resort town of Taba, and progress appeared to be made. Barak improved on his Camp David offer, reportedly agreeing to cede the entire Gaza Strip and West Bank - with Israeli territory to be exchanged for West Bank settlement blocs to be annexed to Israel - and a compromise formula on the ''right" of Palestinian refugees to return to homes they fled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence.

Many Israelis, however, doubted the Barak government's mandate to agree to far-reaching concessions under the shadow of elections. The talks foundered completely after Arafat, at an international economic conference in Switzerland, launched a blistering verbal attack on Israel, calling it "fascist" and raising spurious claims about Israeli use of poison gas and uranium-tipped weapons.

On Feb. 6, Israelis headed to the polls. Less than two years after electing Barak with a strong mandate, Israelis this time overwhelmingly voted against him, choosing Sharon in a landslide.

Israelis were tired of being scared. They wanted to return to the malls, their downtown shopping areas, the Saturday afternoons shopping for vegetables in nearby Israeli Arab villages. They didn't want to hear about Tel Aviv yuppies getting murdered in the West Bank town of Tulkarm while shopping for pottery. Or young soldiers being blown up in the line of duty. Or settlers being stoned and shot in their cars driving home from work.

Yet Sharon's resounding victory was not a moment of rejoicing for many Israelis. The Arab community, for example, stayed home, refraining from voting.

Faced with seemingly implacable Palestinian hostility, centrist Israelis had chosen a man they never expected to have as prime minister. The settlers felt sure they now had a prime minister who understood their needs, one unafraid to escalate the conflict if need be to solve the problem.

By early March, Sharon brought together Likud, Labor, Shas and other parties in a unity government. A triumvirate of Sharon and two Labor Party politicians, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, were the main decision-makers.

In its first half year in power, Sharon's Cabinet has concentrated on putting out fires, stepping up Barak's policy of targeted killings of leading Palestinian militants. Sharon also has proven more willing to send Israeli forces on brief missions into Palestinian-controlled territory to root out terrorists or destroy buildings that shield Palestinian gunmen.

Yet Sharon has shown himself, to many Israelis' surprise, to be surprisingly levelheaded.

In May, he declared a unilateral Israeli cease-fire, absorbing Palestinian attacks while world sympathy ostensibly built for Israel.

Following a devastating suicide bombing June 1 at a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21 Israeli teens and young adults, Sharon was expected to order a devastating blow against the Palestinian Authorty. Instead, he chose not to respond, allowing American and European politicians to broker a weak cease-fire based on the Mitchell Commission report.

The cease-fire has remained more of a theory than a fact, and Israelis still are waiting for Sharon to lose his patience and strike back hard at the Palestinian Authority. Given Sharon's restraint, some vigilante settlers have taken responsibility into their hands, killing several Palestinians in drive-by shootings.

Those on the left believe Sharon is stalling for time, doing just enough to keep the conflict free of international intervention but resisting the move back to the negotiating table, where he would be pressured to make what he considers unacceptable diplomatic concessions.

Sharon says he is fighting terrorism, but won't be drawn into a war just to appease his constituency.

Still, he's hardly popular around the world. In June, war crimes charges were launched against Sharon in Belgium for his role in the 1982 massacre by Israel's Lebanese Christian allies of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. An Israeli inquiry mission at the time found Sharon indirectly responsible because, as defense minister overseeing the war, he failed to foresee and prevent the massacre.

The drumbeat of international condemnation of Israel quickened over the summer when Denmark considered arresting Israel's ambassador-designate, Carmi Gillon. A former head of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security service - and, later, the Peres Center for Peace - Gillon defended the Shin Bet's former use of "physical pressure'' to elicit testimony from detainees it believed had knowledge of imminent terrorist attacks.

But the anti-Israel calumny reached its peak in late August and early September with the U.N. Conference Against Racism, and an associated meeting of nongovernmental organizations, in Durban, South Africa. Arab and Muslim groups elicited the support of groups from around the world to condemn Israel as a racist and apartheid state whose treatment of Palestinians constituted war crimes.

And as Rosh Hashana 5762 approaches, there is no sign that the Palestinian violence, or that the international pressure on Israel, would let up.

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